Theater of Cruelty

To live side by side with others

Kosher Beach
Regissør: Karin Kainer
(Israel, USA)

UN BEACH / The gender-segregated beach in Tel Aviv has been around for many years, which has gradually become a haven for an ultra-Orthodox population.


A young man sings an aria from a well-known opera. It's Puccini. Next to it, two men dance to the tones, close and both in microscopic swimsuits. As a small group of ultra-Orthodox girls pass by, they hesitantly stop, then turn their gaze down, but still can't help but stare at the smiles while giggling loudly at each other.

The appearance is apparent reality, but here is a scene in Israeli director Karin Kainer's latest documentary, Kosher Beach, shown at this year's DocAviv. It is an incisive portrayal of a place in Tel Aviv where an almost separate cultural meeting takes place in the most beautiful way, namely Nordau Beach at the northern end of the city's long beach. The beach is closed off with a high plank to shield the bathers from prying eyes, and it is a popular excursion destination for the ultra-Orthodox population. A large proportion of the beach guests come from the neighboring municipality of Bnei Brak. "Everything is close together in Bnei Brak," says one of the women who follows the film. «From my kitchen window, I can look straight into eight other apartments, and you can hear every single noise from the neighbors. When I come out here on the beach, I have an incredible sense of freedom. The sea opens my heart. "

And it works the way that Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday are reserved for women, while men have Monday and Wednesday to take a secluded dip in the Mediterranean.

Kosher Beach Instructor Karin Kainer

UN beach

The gender-segregated beach in Tel Aviv has been around for many years, but no one really remembers how many. Little by little, it has become a haven for an ultra-Orthodox population that usually comes from outside. But completely in the spirit of pluralism, the Tel Aviv City Council has taken on the task and runs the beach as a municipal offering. Cleaning is provided and the four lifeguards present at the beach opening hours are paid by the municipality.

That in itself is one of the film's big eye openers, because even though it is "women's day" on the beach, the four lifeguards are men and they are "real men". Their naked upper bodies are well fueled by the sun, and they travel freely between all the ultra-Orthodox women. No one seems to be offended. On the contrary, women frequently enter the lifeguard tower and the atmosphere is warm. Some bring watermelon to the men, and when a bottle of milk is to be heated for a child, the lifeguards are the help themselves.

Ultra-Orthodox girls throw on the cover and take off
bikini while on the beach.

In fact, there are three beaches on this blunt Mediterranean coast. In addition to the gender segregated, there is one reserved for gays and lesbians, and between the two lies the beach, where dog owners can let the four-legged running freely around. One of the lifeguards refers to the middle as the "UN beach" because the dogs seem to act as peacekeepers between two groups that are usually at odds with each other.

However, the conflict is absent here on the beach, and in this way the film holes in some habitual misconceptions. People are here to enjoy the free time, and they put everything into making it work smoothly. Seen in that light, it may not seem so surprising that there are also ultra-Orthodox girls who wear the coveralls and wear bikini while on the beach. One of the girls is the daughter of the woman from Bnei Brak with the eight neighbors: "It probably contradicts my personal opinion, but here on the beach we women have our private space, so I can only respect her decision," she tells the camera.

Spiritual Holocaust

Of course, the other side of the case also exists. Certain rabbis in Bnei Brak are anything but enthusiastic about these beach trips. They are aware that women encounter a completely different culture that could endanger their lifestyle. One of them calls the beach "spiritual holocaust" and we see how Bnei Brak is set up Passover – the special wall papers, which are a common form of communication in the ultra-Orthodox world – that warn against, or even forbid, the minibuses that transport beach guests. We see a group of women leaving the beach to take the bus home at the agreed time, only to find that the bus has disappeared. It turns out that one of the rabbis has been there to order it out of the way, and otherwise the women have to be themselves on how to get home!

"I was surprised at how strong-willed these women are," the film's director Karin Kainer told Ny Tid. “They are deeply religious, but far from being subject to the will of men, as we secularists often see them. They are very feminist, and know exactly what they want. And every time a rabbi gets in the way, they find their own creative solution. ”

It was no easy task to gain access to the beach's intimacy, and not even with a camera. As Kainer sees it, Bnei Brak is an extremely closed world to outsiders, and it took her several months to establish the first contact and a tab of trust: “They don't trust secular media of any kind, so it was great that I was allowed to film them at all, ”she says.

Sin City

"Drinking salt water makes you thirsty and wants to drink even more," says one of the women. She belongs to the older generation and follows the beach life from a shady bench, wearing thick stockings and wig. She is not unconditionally pleased with what she sees. "She's naked, or worse than naked," she says of the bikini-clad girl, but is probably more incomprehensible than really judgmental.

An older woman wearing thick stockings and wig is all over it
clean that Tel Aviv is the city of sin.

Like many of the others, she is perfectly clear that Tel Aviv is the city of sin, and almost as an underlining of her point of view one can hear the bastons pounding from the "gay beach". But with a twinkle in her eye, she also says that it is natural for things to change and that you have to keep up with the times. It is an openness that exists in her seemingly closed world and which we often find difficult to see from the outside.

There is plenty of dressy humor along the way. We follow the small talk of women ...

But all of a sudden, Middle Eastern reality is pressing. There are rocket alarms and the lifeguards have said in advance that everyone should be able to get out of the water and be safe in 90 seconds. Everyone adheres to the instructions, but once they are ashore, they are barely in a hurry to reach the shelter of the beach.

Here is shown a willingness to live side by side with others as long as mutual respect ensues. In this way, the film carries a message: What if you imagined that the beach guests next to the ultra-Orthodox women were Palestinians from the occupied territories?

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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